‘Square R2’: a combination used to turn and shoot on Fifa but also Paul Pogba’s unconventional nickname for his former team-mate Paulo Dybala. The pair have remained close since their single, Scudetto-winning season together at Juventus four years ago. “Who knows,” Dybala wondered last November, “maybe in the future we can play together again.”
Maybe they can, but it remains a ‘maybe’ for the moment. Romelu Lukaku is certainly willing to move in the opposite direction. Whether Manchester United can complete one of the more audacious signings in their recent history now hinges solely on Dybala and the outcome of meetings held later today in Turin.
If Dybala accepts that there is no longer a place for him at Juventus, United will be close to signing a player coveted across the continent, one that would complement any squad in elite European football. The only question, then, would be how exactly this surprise acquisition will fit in at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United?
There is, for example, little evidence from Dybala’s career that suggests he can be trusted to effectively press the ball, despite Solskjaer’s insistence that his United – the forwards, in particular – will chase and harry their opponents incessantly now that they have a full pre-season under their belts.
Many have trumpeted Dybala’s ability to play on the right wing – a long-time problem position at United – where he could offer a degree of unpredictability cutting inside on his natural left. This ignores the fact that Dybala has just experienced his least productive Serie A campaign in years after being regularly shunted out wide, where he scored just five goals and registered five assists.
And stylistically, Dybala would represent a change from not only Lukaku but the rest of United’s attacking options. He is clearly not a bustling, physical focal point in the mould of the Belgian, but he is not necessarily suited to Solskjaer’s preferred approach of counter-attacking from deep at pace either.
Actually, as Pogba correctly pointed out, he is a ‘Square R2’: an intricate, elaborate player more likely to score by picking the ball up in tight areas, creating space for himself through his sublime movement and then finishing. He draws from a range of attributes rather than a specific skill set. In a United side built around pace and physicality, he would be a more cerebral outlier.
Luckily, Solskjaer appears to have been making room for such a player. The Norwegian returned to Old Trafford last December preferring the 4-3-3 set-up he had used at Molde, playing without a No 10. As his caretaker spell progressed, though, he introduced a central playmaker, persisting with one even as results went south.
Were those many draws and defeats during the final months of last season a failure of the system or personnel? Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata rarely did enough in the No 10 role to nail it down. But that has not discouraged Solskjaer from persevering with them through United’s pre-season, as part of a consistent 4-2-3-1 shape that demands invention in central, attacking areas.
It is a formation and role tailor-made for Dybala. There, playing off Marcus Rashford, flanked by Anthony Martial and perhaps Lingard or Daniel James, he would find himself back in his most influential position, the one from which he scored the majority of his 26 Juventus goals two seasons ago.
Dybala is not limited to a spot behind the striker and would be equally adept at playing up top, with Rashford shifted left. Either way, there is a sense that a player marginalised by the arrival of one Cristiano Ronaldo last year would simply like to be central, leading influence again. Ideally, he would like to be able to do that at Juventus. Increasingly, it seems he may have to settle for United.
His struggles last year are a concern all the same, as the stylistic contradictions. For all the excitement, United would acquire a player in Dybala is at the first crossroads of his career, just as he is approaching his peak years. He has all the gifts required to regain the form which marked him out as a superstar during that first year at Juventus with Pogba, so long as his new club understands how to best use his talents.
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